The NCAA levied a $60 million sanction against Penn State University after reviewing the outcome of the Freeh report which identified the failures of the institution to protect the victims and putting the institution's needs above the law. Penn State was obligated to comply with child welfare laws and Title IX; it failed. Laws were in place. In the case of Title IX, the institution had required policies and procedures in place. The institution did all of the things it was supposed to do on paper and ultiately, but ultimately this was no more than "lip service" to its legal and ethical obligations. The lesson to be learned from Penn State is a pretty simple one. The organization reflects the values and ethics of its leadership. When a law like Title IX gets passed, whether it is the sexual harassment provisions of the law or its athletics participation requirements, if the institution does not embraces its purpose, educate its staff and make certain that all employees clearly understand their obligations -- then Sandusky happens. No one in the formal leadership -- presidents and senior administrators -- or in the informal power club -- Paterno, made it clear that compliance with the law was an expected zero tolerance obligation.
Just because there is a law, doesn't mean there is justice. Just because there is a law, there is no guarantee of ethical conduct. So what is the answer? When there are ethical people, you don't need the law, or policies or education programs. However, because we cannot assume that everyone is ethical, if we want a just society, we need to do the best we can. The best we can has at least four parts: (1) promulgating laws which expressly prohibit behaviors or dictate required "right" actions on the part of all citizens, (2) adopt ethical conduct policies applicable to all employees that require conformance to legal and professional standards, (3) educate employees, parents and students how to recognize unethical conduct and be sure they know how to report it, (4) the reporting process designates a trusted individual whose responsibility is to advocate for the victim rather than protect the institution and (5) the leaders of the organization must make it clear that it is essential to report such conduct and that they will act promptly to restore a safe environment. Parts 3 through 5 is where Penn State really failed.
If the Penn State football culture was "an accident waiting to happen," here's another "wake-up call." Where Title IX requires colleges to prevent sexual harassment by training staff and develop and publicize polices to help sexual assault victims to investigate all reports of rape promptly, this law does not apply to organizations conducting open amateur sports. A pedophile like Sandusky can start his own youth sports program, as a storefront business, an LLC, or a non-profit organization. Essentially there is a huge hole in our legal system, open amateur athletes participating in non-school settings are not protected against sexual harassment and assault except for tort law. Unlike schools, they are not required to have policies or procedures in place to prevent and address sexual harassment.
While research data on sexual abuse in open amateur sports in the USA does not exist, we can assume its prevalence probably isn't much different than in other countries. In a recent study in the UK reported by the BBC, it was noted that there 652 reports of abuse by coaches, 124 of those for sexual abuse, 98 of the sexual abuse cases where sent back to the sport governing body to handle, of those cases it resulted in zero coaches being banned from their sport or any sport. A highly respected Australian study (1) of 370 elite and club level athletes reported that of 31 percent of females and 21 percent of males who had been sexually abused at some time in their lives, 41 percent of the females and 29 percent of the males reported that this abuse occurred in the sport environment. The researchers concluded that among elite athletes there was a 50 percent chance of abuse and among club athletes a 25 percent chance for abuse. And, unlike the Sandusky/Penn State case, the Fine/Syracuse University case or the Dodd/AAU case, it is more likely that athlete sexual abuse will involve a male perpetrator and a female victim.
Without a systematic and uniformed way to handle sexual abuse and assault in open amateur sports, male and female athletes remain vulnerable. Every parent and every athlete who is concerned about their own safety should insist that any sports club or program in which they participate have the following protections in place:
• Required criminal background checks of coaches, volunteers and all employees working with participants
• Designation of an "athlete welfare advocate" to whom any athlete concerned about the conduct of an adult can speak to in a protected environment
• Comprehensive policies and procedures that define coach, volunteer and employee misconduct including sexual harassment, bully, hazing and other and specify zero tolerance for such behavior
• Educational programs for parents, athletes and employees that teach everyone how to recognize and report misconduct
As a result of the lack of protection in open amateur sports Safe4Athletes was created to address the vulnerabilities of our athletes and sports clubs. Safe4Athletes.com contains free policies and programs that can be adopted by any organization. Our policies are designed to respond with deliberate action and empower the local sports clubs to address this issue in a timely fashion, restore the environment and remediate the harm.
1.Leahy, T. Pretty, G. and Tenenbaum, G. (2002) 'Prevalence of sexual abuse in organised competitive sport in Australia', Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8(2): 16-36
Follow Katherine Starr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Safe4Athletes